Has Hungary’s opposition learned to coordinate against Fidesz, the right-wing governing party?

In recent weeks Fidesz, Hungary’s ruling party, has proposed legislation to tighten its hold over state-supported theaters, and further consolidated the media under central control.

This may be a response to Fidesz’s major losses in October’s mayoral races. Fidesz entered the elections holding 38 of the 47 most significant positions — but ended up with only 19.

Fidesz lost (contrary to some media coverage) because of the consolidation of the opposition vote. And it faces an important choice: whether to adapt by pursuing effective governance, or by attempting to undermine democracy.

Fidesz altered the election system

Hungary has a mixed electoral system. Some elections are single-member district contests, like most races in the United States. Others award seats based on the percentage of the vote each party won — using a party list system. And some elections combine both systems. After Fidesz won a supermajority in 2010, it rewrote the constitution to increase the portion of seats in the Hungarian parliament that are won in single-member districts, and to eliminate two-round (runoff) provisions for the single-member districts.

This helped Fidesz win the next several elections because opposition votes remained divided between multiple parties — it was rare for any opposition party to win more votes than Fidesz in any district. Unless the opposition unified, Fidesz would win under the new electoral system, according to logic political scientists call Duverger’s Law.

Fidesz dominated the party system

Fidesz dominated the Hungarian party system in the 2010s, even though the party typically won less than 50 percent of the nationwide vote in party-list elections — between 44.9 percent in 2014, and 49.3 percent in 2019. While winning almost half of the vote could have led to very narrow victories and losses, Fidesz consistently won a larger percentage of seats than actual votes because the divided opposition in single-member districts could rarely win a plurality.

For example, in the 2014 national elections, Fidesz won 91 percent of single-member districts, despite winning less than 45 percent of the nationwide vote — and despite winning a majority in only 20 districts out of 106. The same pattern emerged in the 2014 mayoral elections in the largest cities and the Budapest mayoral districts. Fidesz won 38 of 47 races while carrying a majority in only 19 of these contests.

A similar pattern occurred in the 2018 parliamentary elections: Fidesz won 86 percent of single-member districts (with a majority in only half of these) while winning 49.3 percent of the vote. Across elections, the Fidesz seat share exceeded its vote share.

Opposition parties found it difficult to break this hold

Why didn’t opposition voters and parties form a bloc capable of challenging Fidesz? In part, coordination proved challenging because Fidesz’s ideology arguably places it between the other parties. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, for instance, a coalition of the parties to the left of Fidesz won 26 percent of the vote, Fidesz won 45 percent and the far-right Jobbik party won 20 percent. Coordination on a single opposition candidate across such a range of ideological positions is not easy — but the opposition managed this difficult trick in the 2019 municipal elections.

Party list elections also discourage coordination, as this type of election means opposition parties win seats in the absence of coordination. In the proportional elections for the European Parliament, Hungary’s opposition parties won 9 of 21 seats in 2014 and 8 of 21 seats in 2019 without running as a bloc or otherwise coordinating.

Similarly, nearly half of the 199 seats in the Hungarian parliament are awarded based upon the party list system. Opposition parties won 55 percent of list seats in 2014 and 51 percent in 2018. Running as a coordinated bloc wouldn’t have improved these outcomes much. If anything, coordination poses risks for list-seat competition: A party may lose its identity and voters, voters may turn away from opposition parties if they oppose a compromise coalition platform, and a party may lose out in the allocation of compensation seats. The fear of losses in the party-list seats may undermine pursuit of single-member district gains.

Another challenge is leadership. Personality conflicts have complicated cooperation, and many Hungarians attribute opposition fragmentation to the absence of a leader with enough reputation and charisma. Such a leader may not be necessary, however. A key development in 2019 was the use of primaries to institutionalize coordination.

What changed in 2019?

The fall 2019 municipal elections were a relatively easy venue for coordination, as the key mayoral races were all single-member district contests. All Hungary’s major opposition parties cooperated, using primary election contests to select candidates in some instances, and clearing the field for a head-to-head competition between an opposition coalition choice and the Fidesz candidate.

Opposition parties and independent candidates won 28 of the 47 most significant contests — compared to just nine in the previous election. Better opposition coordination, rather than larger vote shares, was the principal reason behind these victories. Among the races Fidesz won in 2019, setting aside the scandal-linked election of the mayor of Gyor, its average vote share declined from 2014 by a mere 0.89 percent.

But will this coordination last?

Coordination may be challenging in Hungary’s parliamentary elections scheduled for 2022 because the party list allows parties to win some seats without coordinating. And Fidesz may attempt to stymie cooperation. Yet in the absence of effective opposition coordination in the single-member districts, Fidesz will continue using popular vote minorities to win plurality victories.

The 2019 municipal elections give opposition politicians access to the significant power and budgets of local governments. However, an even more important consequence involves cooperation. The opposition coordination success is likely to encourage coordination in future contests, improving the odds of victory.

Jesse Richman is associate professor of political science and international studies at Old Dominion University and received a Fulbright grant at the University of Public Service in Budapest for fall 2019.

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